Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Most people who live near the “lake of stars” (Lake Malawi) are fishermen. Essau’s father was a fisherman and his mother was a subsistence farmer. Born in 1982, Essau Abbu Salaman was the second born child. Life was hard but the vast lake was generous. Home to more species of fish than any other fresh water expanse on earth it’s always been a primary source of income and protein. Essau’s mother cultivated enough rice and maize to help feed the family. When there was surplus produce this would be sold to provide for other basic needs.

Both his parents are from Mozambique. They belong to the Wayao (Yao) tribe, a proud ethnic group that spans Tanzania, Mozambique and southern parts of Malawi. In the 18th and 19th centuries Islam came to Africa. At the same time missionaries brought Christianity. Yao people are predominantly Muslim as is the entire Salaman family.

People dropping from the sky

As a boy Essau lived in a village in the Salima district, close to a military base. While he’s always respected the hardworking community culture of his people, he had other dreams. The first time he saw army parachutists drop from out of the sky he knew he wanted to be a soldier. However, things don’t always go as planned. Essau was a bright child and a deep thinker but owing to circumstance he was unable to complete his education beyond form three.

Struggling for survival

Malawi is a popular tourist destination. Where the lake is it’s biggest attraction, the people are it’s most notable asset. Ask anyone who has had the pleasure of meeting a Malawian. In spite of the majority of people living in extreme poverty there’s a friendly, openhandedness everywhere. As for the lake, in recent decades fish stocks have rapidly diminished. While there are major efforts to conserve fish stock and to protect local fisherman from larger exploitative fishing operations, Essau’s family have struggled. His parents separated in 1992.

As a young man Essau left his country of birth to seek work to support himself and to help support his family. By this time he was one of five brothers and sisters. In 1999 he headed to South Africa where he worked long hours for little pay as a pool cleaner and jewellery seller, often taking whatever odd jobs he could to make ends meet. There were huge gaps of unemployment in between. He worried constantly about his mother, grandmother and siblings.

A Muslim barman?

By the time he was appointed at GOLD Restaurant as a cleaner in 2005 Essau had been unemployed for eight months. He was living in an overcrowded, halfway-type-house in Cape Town. He knew nothing about the restaurant business. Where many people are mistrustful of foreigners, “Cindy saw something in me”, he says. “For the first time in my adult life I remembered I once had dreams. I started believing again that I could go anywhere and be anything. I was no longer a failure”.

Essau worked hard and learned about stock, food, and beverage. Now he works as a barman. “A Muslim barman” he laughs. While he’s not a devout Muslim he doesn’t drink alcohol. He enjoys chatting to guests from all over the world. He says, “this is not just a job for me. It’s family. I couldn’t survive without it”.

Hardship, sadness and regret

Underneath the charming, friendly personality there is some sadness and regret. When his mother fell ill in 2011 he had to make a three-day bus journey to be at her side. She passed before he got there. He hasn’t quite come to terms with the fact that he didn’t make it in time to say “goodbye” and that he missed the burial. In his culture the burial takes place the day after but “I knows she’s proud of me” he says.

Essau admits he does worry about the future. “I give myself headaches from thinking about it”. His little boy Dion lives far away in Johannesburg. Once a year, when he gets annual leave, Essau does his best to make sure he has enough money to go and spend time with his son. He also acknowledges that he feels the burden of responsibility for his extended family in Malawi but he has no intention of shying away from it.

The way forward

While he hasn’t yet parachuted he still intends to, at least once. He has however, been to the top of Table Mountain with Cindy. “Before I could only imagine what the world would look like from the sky. The mountain is so high. I drank mountain water and for the first time and I was able to see how beautiful Cape Town really is.”

One day he’d like to run his own import/export business between South Africa, Malawi and Mozambique. For now though he’s happy at GOLD. He says, “Here I always have hope because GOLD is a place to be hopeful”.



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